Woes of specialization and resulting debt

Students who specialize and go on to graduate school do not deserve current criticism.

Ronald Dixon

I was troubled to read a recent Star Tribune story that highlighted the debt that University of Minnesota veterinarian student Ashley Hall will owe once she graduates in 2016 — more than $300,000.

There are many folks who believe that Hall should never have taken out the loans or have pursued a career treating and caring for animals. The ones who criticize Hall’s situation — or that of anyone else who accumulates loads of debt — fail to comprehend two basic realities regarding the circumstances that young people face today.

The first is that we have been inundated with the message that we can be whatever we want to be and that college is the key to unlocking this potential. The second is that, for some people, economic returns are not going to be nearly as important as pursuing a career path that will be the most fulfilling for them. In other words, enrichment outweighs a stable paycheck.

Financial realities don’t seem to be as harsh for those that enter the job market after their undergraduate education. Indeed, the problem of college debt exacerbates when one transitions to graduate school. It’s specialization that inflicts the most harm to financial stability, especially when many of these narrowly specialized career paths have weak job markets.

In a sense, a lackluster economy may not be as bad for liberal arts majors as many would have us believe. The skills that liberal arts students develop while taking a multitude of diverse classes are easily transferable to many different jobs. Moreover, by not specializing in a particular field, liberal arts students are free to pursue alternative paths if their original plans don’t align with the market.

This is the route that I’m taking. While I would love to practice law or teach high school social studies, for example, I can’t bring myself to justify training for jobs that aren’t there.

There are, however, many young people who simply cannot imagine living a happy life while working outside their chosen field — perhaps this is the case with Hill and her veterinary studies.

Let’s not rush to judge these people when we analyze their situations. While I can imagine myself in several career fields, I am not going to criticize someone for, among all things, following their passion and wanting to be excited to head to their dream job every day.

I am a staunch defender of anyone, especially graduate students, who wishes to go to college but needs to use loans to pay for their education. College should not be an opportunity that is available only for the rich or the athletic.

I believe that those who wish to follow their passions and study a field that is personally enriching should not be unfairly criticized when they are already facing unfathomable debt.